Disclaimers, et al, can be found at the beginning of Part I.

ALL IN

Part III

Buffy stayed frozen for only a moment before she took the two steps she needed to reach Cordelia and hug her hard. Cordelia accepted the gesture without pulling away, but remained silent. After a few seconds, Buffy realized that he was embracing Cordelia hard enough to hurt her and pulled away quickly--then realized that Cordelia *would* have protested. She took an instant to get a feel for her surroundings, then sighed and looked at Cordelia with sadness: "I'm dreaming again, aren't I? Damn."

Cordelia smiled wistfully. "Yeah--but it's really me, if it makes you feel any better. Part of the package that I got when Skip tricked me into the higher power deal--I can enter the dreams of those with psychic abilities when the Powers let me do so. Had to wait for you to fall asleep, though-- it's a good thing that Giles can still get through to you."

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "So you're here to talk to me about Xander?"

"No--that's just something I'm getting done while I'm here, since you're not listening to the conscious." Buffy winced at Cordelia's retort, and the seer smiled wickedly for a moment before her eyes went sad again and she said simply, "There's a new arrival who's refusing to move on until she talks to you, and she needed a guide." She gestured into the hallway, and a familiar, softly glowing figure walked over to Cordelia.

Buffy stared, disbelieving, as Valerie gave her a shy look and whispered, "Hi, Buffy."

Buffy moved forward slowly--as if she was afraid that Valerie would vanish-- and reached out to touch her. Valerie felt solid, and Buffy gently drew the taller woman to her and cried softly on her shoulder as Valerie held her and Cordelia watched. After a few moments, Buffy pulled away and saw that Valerie's eyes were full of tears. Buffy took a deep breath and said simply, "Valerie--I'm so sorry I let that bastard get you."

Valerie shook her head. "Don't, Buffy. You told me the risks of being on my own, and he had a good scam running. He had a lot of inside info, and he managed to intercept my call to you--you might want to check to see if there's a way to plug that leak: other Watchers might have had the same deal with the devil that he did." Buffy nodded, and Valerie paused for a moment before straightening slightly and adding with a note of pride in her voice, "Besides, I didn't go down without a fight."

"No, you didn't." Buffy replied, and the look in her eyes made it clear to Valerie that the senior Slayer was very proud of her. Valerie smiled softly, and Buffy asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

Valerie nodded, "I know you've got connections, and that you've got my body. Make it look like I died in a car accident before you tell my family- -I don't want them ever to know about--" She paused, and looked down.

Buffy felt a moment of intense sadness. She wanted nothing more than to sit Valerie's family down and tell them that their daughter and sister had died fighting against something that would have been a threat to the entire world, and that she had faced her fate with courage and honor. Unfortunately, the price of that knowledge would be that they would know that the world was a far more dangerous and evil place than they could have imagined--and Valerie was well within her rights to protect them from that. She waited for Valerie to look up, then replied softly, "I'll take care of it--and I'll make sure they know I think you were a wonderful woman-- someone I would have been proud to work with."

Valerie swallowed hard and whispered, "Thank you, Buffy." She extended her hand, and the two Slayers grasped each others forearms in a warrior's leave- taking. Buffy released Valerie reluctantly, and tears ran down her cheeks as Valerie smiled, nodded, and vanished.

Buffy looked at the space where Valerie had been, then turned back to the room, walking past Cordelia and sitting in the chair with a look of being exhausted. She looked back up at her old friend and whispered, "I hate this."

"I know." Cordelia reached for a chair--being careful not to step over the black line--and pulled it next to Buffy. "In case I never mentioned it to you, I came to appreciate the crap you always went through over the years while I was here with Angel. Dead friends, people you try to protect getting killed anyway--or just winning and realizing you haven't accomplished a hell of a lot by doing it. It sucks--but there are always the moments that remind you why it was worth it--and seeing her here just now was one of them for both of us." Buffy sighed, and Cordelia added, "And you have better reason to know than just about anyone that Valerie's going to a better place--she'll be fine." Buffy nodded reluctantly, and was startled when Cordelia's expression and tone changed abruptly: "Now let's talk about you and my temporarily unconscious ex-boyfriend."

Buffy blinked, and looked at Cordelia in annoyance before shrugging and saying, "What's to talk about? He's been offered a job that he'd be great at, and he'll accept it and work like crazy without worrying about anything else until he decides that maybe he should let the hottie billionaire Slayer talk him into her bed."

Cordelia chuckled, and Buffy glared at her as the taller woman looked back with a deeply amused expression: "What's so damned funny?"

Cordelia shook her head and replied, "Buffy--you've known Xander for almost seven years. Have you *ever* known him to avoid interested women?"

Buffy stared at Cordelia, and thought about the question for a moment. "Well, he turned me down cold once--"

"Yeah--once he figured out that love spell he tried to screw me over with had zapped you, and that it *wasn't* just his fondest wish coming true," Buffy blinked in surprise at Cordelia's knowledge of things she shouldn't be aware of, and the seer snorted, "I've been stuck with very little to do for a *long* time in the last two years, and between the powers that Doyle stuck me with and the ones that Skip tricked me into accepting, I'm as close to omniscient regarding the past and present as you're ever going to see. Would *you* pass up a chance to see a lot of the crap that was going on behind the scenes in your past if you had the chance? If I get out of that coma, I'm *so* kicking Xander's ass for that stunt--he never told me *why* he cast it." Buffy grinned at Cordelia's obvious--if belated-- outrage, and Cordelia stopped ranting and started smiling in response before prodding her: "Any other times?"

"Not when he was with someone else," replied Buffy, not adding her next thought, * and not always when he -was- * She shrugged and asked, "What's your point?"

"My point is that for eight months Xander's been living in a hotel surrounded by beautiful, sexy women--many of whom would mud-wrestle in front of him for a chance to date him. He's got a hell of a motive to get hooked up with one of them, because your crazy sister conspired with his crazy dead ex-demon girlfriend to make sure he wouldn't retire to a life of celibacy, like that would be all tragic or something." Buffy carefully stifled the laughter that Cordelia's irritated expression threatened to provoke, and Cordelia glared at the Slayer for a moment before adding, "You know he likes Helen, and her brother's become one of his best friends. It would have one thing if she had proposed marriage, but she just wanted to go out with him and see what would happen--why didn't he go along with the program?"

Buffy shrugged again. "Maybe he's still not over Anya being gone."

Cordelia shook her head. "I got a good sense of where his head was when he and Angel did that ritual thing to communicate with me--he was hurting over Anya, but the way she died helped him deal: she went down fighting. The letter helped more: he's been ready for months to move on--I'm sure of it."

Buffy shook her head. "Then maybe Helen was right, and he's interested in someone else."

"Well, duh, Buffy," Cordelia replied, shaking her head in annoyance. "Let's see--someone he's in contact with in spite of not having left L.A. except for quick Slayer retrievals in the past eight months, and who he hasn't managed to get hooked up with in spite of nothing visible being in the way of him just asking her: who could *that* be?"

Buffy scowled at Cordelia--she knew damned well what the seer was saying, but an inner reluctance caused her to resist the obvious conclusion. She remembered something, and she scowled slightly as she exclaimed, "Wait a second--I caught Dawn with a hickey the other day, and she was being dodgy. Maybe she's cheating a few months on her deadline, and Xander's afraid that I might damage something important if I found out." Her expression darkened slightly and she muttered, "And he might not be wrong."

Cordelia snickered. "Xander isn't giving Dawn hickeys, Buffy--and you'll just have to wait to find out who *is*. No fair using my omniscience to spy on your baby sister."

Buffy shrugged, and started pulling likely names out of the air: "Faith."

"Is happy with Robin, and Xander has a bet with Giles about who gets to be best man at the wedding."

Buffy smiled, then scowled as she tried another name: "Fred."

"After she saves Xander, she'll return to planning how to corner Wesley in a dark lab while wearing a very short skirt."

Buffy chuckled involuntarily, and tried again: "Willow?"

Cordelia laughed. "Xander is her pear." Buffy blinked, puzzled, and Cordelia elaborated, "She may go back to guys someday, but it won't be Xander. Why couldn't she have figured that out five years ago, before I had that close encounter with a rebar?"

Buffy was silent, and Cordelia pointed out, "You've run out of names, Buffy."

"Yeah, I noticed," replied Buffy, looking away from Cordelia. She sighed, and turned back to her, whispering, "Why wouldn't he tell me? We talk more these days--he has to know I wouldn't laugh at him or anything."

"Well, let's see. The first time he asked you out, you shot him down with the 'let's be friends' speech. Four months later, you dragged him out on the Bronze dance floor and humiliated him in front of all his friends and his worst enemy--who admittedly got slammed pretty good that night too." Buffy flushed in shame at the memory, and Cordelia concluded, "And, of course, the moment when he thought you had finally fallen for him, only to have it be that love spell that had you ready to kill him and almost caused you to be cat food. Of course, that one was his fault." Buffy shivered, and Cordelia shook her head and added, "Yeah, can't imagine why he wouldn't say anything to you."

"He's not going to say anything--I'd have to speak up before he'd admit it." Buffy turned away from Cordelia, and shook her head fiercely before she added, "Good--then I won't have to hurt him again. I'm not going to do it, Cordelia--I'm not going to let him in."

Cordelia scowled at Buffy. "Oh hell, Buffy--why not? You're obviously attracted to him--I've sensed that on some level since we were in high school--and I'm not the only one. Why do you think Angelus was after him so much? Why do you think *I* never trusted him alone with you? Damn Willow blindsided me--I was watching the wrong girl, at least for right then. You trust him--you *love* him. What's the problem?"

Buffy turned back to Cordelia, and her voice was the barest whisper as she replied:

"Because I don't want to be what kills him, Cordelia."

Cordelia blinked, but remained silent. Buffy blinked, and shook her head as she elaborated, "Cordelia--every relationship that Xander's ever been in has ended badly, and usually with him nearly getting killed. You're the best of the lot, but it's like he's got a death wish and relationship radar that leads him right to the best places to try to indulge it. One of the reasons I'm scared of him moving away is that I'm afraid I won't be there when he finally finds the one who will finish him off."

Cordelia shrugged. "We knew that about him already. So?"

Buffy blinked, and tears came to her eyes as she whispered, "So I screw up the lives of guys who fall for me--they don't get better until they leave me." Cordelia began to protest, but Buffy cut her off: "Angel lost his soul over me, and he spent his last year in Sunnydale being tormented by me playing hot and cold with him until he got some sense and just left town-- he came here and made a life for himself without me. Riley was a dedicated professional soldier when I met him--by the time he left town he was a junkie with a death wish. Less than a year away from me--he's James freaking Bond and married to Wonder Woman. Spike. . .I turned a master vampire into a crazy, confused wreck just by being around him, and I decided that *he* would be the one to get me out of my suicidal depression. He leaves town, and he comes back *with a soul* Well, at least he came back--yay me! Of course, that just meant that he had to die while I ran for my life and left him alone in the dark." Buffy blinked again, and the tears fell as she concluded, "Lucky him--he got away from me."

"Oh, God, Buffy--you don't really think it was all bad, do you?" Cordelia reached out and squeezed Buffy's hand. Buffy squeezed back, but didn't answer. Cordelia sighed and said, "Buffy--Angel was a smelly wreck living in filth before Whistler took him to L.A. and showed him your life. He had- -and has--a rough road ahead of him, but everything that followed was because you inspired him to continue. Riley was living a lie--if it weren't for you, he would have died in that lab without any chance for a future. It's not your fault that he wasn't able to find a purpose in his life other than being with you until he had to leave--and he didn't blame you: he told you that himself when he came back. Spike. . .well, you turned a monster into a reasonable facsimile of a decent person without even a soul to work with, Buffy--and you drove him to take the next step. Yes, the whole thing was deeply screwed up, but looking back on it--you needed Spike right then, and he needed you, and when it all settled out--he saved the world. Not such a bad way to go out." Buffy closed her eyes, and Cordelia shook her head and added, "You made a lot of mistakes, Buffy. We all have--Xander sure as hell has. Don't walk away from what could be happiness because you're afraid you're doomed to fail."

"Cordelia--he's already missing an eye because he chose to follow my lead." Buffy opened her eyes and looked at the still figure on the bed, frowning at the blue glow that continued to surround his body. "What if I'm the final disaster that's just been waiting to find him?"

Cordelia smiled at Buffy, and said simply, "Xander dove in the way of that beam *knowing* he was going to die, Buffy. He pushed all his chips to the center of the table because he was willing to die to give you and Faith just a *chance* to live. If you tell him that you love him--and you do-- and that you're afraid that if he loves you back, it might kill him, what in the hell do you think he's going to say?"

Buffy's eyes widened in revelation, but a tiny doubt remained: "I don't want to be what kills him, Cordelia."

Cordelia snorted. "I didn't want to be an omniscient coma patient, Buffy. None of us ever really get what we want. In this case, you get stuck with the job that Anya gave to Dawn--doing your damnedest to make Xander happy. You could fail, and he could die. You're the Slayer, Buffy--can you deal with that risk in exchange for the upside? Because I know for a fact that Xander could--if you let him."

Buffy locked eyes with Cordelia, and after a long moment she gathered every bit of determination within her, and whispered two words:

"I'll try."

Cordelia smiled and faded away, and Buffy's eyes snapped open. Xander was still lying in the bed, but the scenery in the room had changed. Buffy got to her feet and said, "What the hell--"

"Fred and I had a brainstorm," replied Willow--who was standing in the doorway. She looked down at her old friend and commented, "You were really out--it took twenty minutes to set this up, including the spell."

Buffy stared at the new objects in the room, careful to stay behind the black line. A large needle had been inserted into Xander's arm, attached to what looked like a very thin thread that was glowing blue. The thread ran over about ten feet to a cylindrical object that appeared to be--Buffy raised an eyebrow and asked Willow, "Is that a hot dog?"

"A Dodger Dog, to be exact. We needed a large one, for the purposes of this approach." Willow pointed to the hot dog, which was sizzling as the blue light seemed to seep from the thread into it. Buffy stared, uncomprehending, and Willow explained, "We needed to draw the anti-magic out in a way that would allow us to neutralize it away from Xander's body. The thread is very strong but non-magical spider silk--bringing it into contact with Xander's body without proper shielding caused the anti-magic to move along it without damaging the thread. I threw a material strengthening spell on the hot dog and the thread near it: the anti-magic is being drawn along the thread until it reaches the enchanted hot dog and thread section, after which it starts reacting with the material strengthening spell, drawing the anti-magic faster and faster as the reaction gets larger. We were ready to cut the thread if the reaction started going the other way--back to Xander--but it stayed where it was. If the hot dog burns to ash or the thread breaks before the anti-magic is gone, we repeat the process--the anti-magic should be completely out of Xander's body in a few minutes."

Buffy walked over and hugged Willow. "That's great, Will! You guys are geniuses! Well, that's not news, but you're great! This is great! I'm--"

Willow laughed. "Buffy--I take a compliment as well as the next person, and I know you're happy that Xander's going to be OK, but I have the feeling something's going on here that you're not telling me about."

"It can wait--this is more important," Buffy replied, suddenly feeling very nervous. It was one thing to tell Cordelia in the dream world what she would do--it was quite another to tell Willow and the soon-to-be-awake Xander.

"Nothing to do *but* wait, Buffy, unless we have to repeat the procedure. Xander's going to be fine, and you're stalling." Buffy flushed, and hemmed and hawwed for a moment, but she saw Willow's expression change, and the redhead's next words were no surprise: "Resolve face, Buffy--start talking."

Buffy sighed, and began to speak. Willow's eyes brimmed during Buffy's description of her conversation with Valerie, but she recovered quickly when the topic turned to Xander, and Buffy noticed that Willow had a small, secret smile on her face as Buffy concluded her account. Willow was silent when Buffy had finished, and it made Buffy nervous: "Will? Are you going to say something?"

Willow looked straight into Buffy's eyes, and the affection there caused Buffy to shiver slightly as the redhead said simply: "It's about time."

Buffy's jaw dropped, and Willow laughed in delight as she added, "What? Did you think I was just biding my time with Tara and Kennedy? I'm over Xander, Buffy--I told him that, and I'm telling you that." She chuckled and said quietly, "He's my pear."

"OK--someone's going to have to tell me what the hell that means," muttered Buffy.

Willow snickered, then walked over and gave Buffy an uninhibited hug, whispering, "I'm really happy for you, Buffy."

"You might not want to jump the gun, Willow--I still have to talk to him." Buffy looked back at Xander, and she paled visibly as she turned back to Willow. "I don't know if I can bring myself to admit it to him."

"Better start working on it, Buffy." Willow pointed over to the thread. Buffy looked and saw that Xander was no longer glowing blue, and that the blue aura was fading from the thread. With a last sizzle, the glow faded from the charred hot dog, which sat and smoked quietly after the anti-magic was gone. Willow frowned and said simply, "Cross your fingers--I'm going to use an active sensing spell to make sure it's all out of him." She made a quick gesture and uttered a single word: Xander glowed briefly, then faded. He lay quietly, breathing normally. Willow sighed in relief and whispered, "He's clean. We just have to wait for him to wake up now."

Buffy paled further, and turned away from Xander to face Willow. "Willow-- it's too soon. I can't tell him now. What if--?"

Willow rolled her eyes, and was silent for a moment before making a grabbing motion and making a sound like a subdued growl. Buffy jumped in surprise, and asked, "What did you do that for?"

"Nothing--thought I saw a bug," Willow replied. She walked over to Xander and brushed a stray hair from his forehead before turning back and saying, "Look, Buffy--I know you're scared. You just need to get used to the idea of saying what needs to be said to him. He's been through a lot--he'll probably sleep for hours, and you'll know it when he starts waking up. Just sit here and talk to him--tell him what you're thinking. It'll make it easier later." Buffy looked hesitant, and Willow sighed and added, "Look--I need to tell everyone that Xander is OK, and that we'll be able to visit him when he wakes up. I'll close the door after me. No one's going to hear you--just say what you feel, Buffy." The redhead smiled and closed the door after her--Buffy did not see the wicked glimmer in her eyes as she pulled out her cell phone and started walking to Fred's office.

Buffy picked up her chair--relieved that the black tape was now just an unpleasant reminder--and sat next to the bed. She saw that another hair had slipped onto his forehead, and she brushed it back as Willow had. Her hand lingered and brushed down his left cheek in a caress, narrowly missing the eye patch. She pulled her hand back and folded her hands nervously. She swallowed hard, and began to speak:

"Hey--it's nice to be able to get this close to you again. I was starting to worry we might have to keep you in a bubble for the rest of your life-- that wouldn't have been fun. . .Xander--you've got to stop doing stuff like this, OK? Yeah, Faith and I would be dead if you hadn't, but I'm not sure I can bear to sit in this chair another time and wonder if this is the time I got you killed. OK, I know that was pointless, but I had to say it, because it's how I feel--I'm never going to stop hating that being in my life means you keep nearly getting killed, and you're not going to stop sticking your neck out when one of us is in trouble. I think Giles would call that an impasse, and we're both going to have to live with that."

Buffy paused, and the only sound in the room was Xander's soft, rhythmic breathing. Buffy relaxed a bit. * This isn't so hard * She took a deep breath, and continued:

"So my Slayer dreams kicked in again--got to say goodbye to Valerie, and I had a talk with your scary ex-girlfriend--the one in a coma. She pointed out some things to me that I should have noticed before--there are a lot of rude comments from Dawn and my friends that make a hell of a lot more sense now. After seven years, there's no point in beating around the bush, Xander. I'm pretty sure you're in love with me--and I *know* I'm in love with you. And let me tell you--the idea of it all scares me more than anything has in a while. You've got a talent for finding the worst possible women to fall for, Xander--and I've got an even bigger talent for royally screwing up the lives of the guys who fall for me--you gave me a pretty good yelling-at over one of them three years ago, and I've never forgotten it."

Buffy paused, remembering the confrontation in the warehouse and feeling another pang of doubt, but Xander's continued silence gave her the courage to continue: "I'm afraid that those two talents brought together are going to be the death of you, Xander--and I'm not sure I'll be able to live with myself if that happens. I'll always need and want you here, even if we couldn't make it work. Helen's offered you a great job--and there's no reason in hell you couldn't do work just as important here, or somewhere else if that's what you want. You've built a life and an identity completely separate from me--if I died tomorrow, you could go on without me and live a life that anyone would be proud of. I'm afraid that if you open your eyes and say yes to trying to make it work between us, I'll be taking that away from you--and I don't want to do that, not if it's not the best thing for you." Buffy closed her eyes, and the tears began to fall as she whispered desperately, "God, Xander--I just wish I knew what you really wanted."

"Right now? I want to kick Willow's ass for hitting me with that binding spell just when I was waking up."

Shocked into reflexive action, Buffy jumped to her feet, kicking the chair back to shatter against the wall behind her. Xander was watching her with his one good eye, and his expression was decidedly ambivalent. Buffy blinked, and tried desperately to regain her composure as she asked dazedly: "Binding spell?"

"Yep. We worked together for weeks to perfect it, along with some people with some actual magic in their bodies. Closed my eyes, made my voluntary muscles stop working, and forced a normal sleeping breathing pattern. Ears were working just fine, though. Very handy--you should ask her to demonstrate it."

Buffy stared, and quietly made the grabbing gesture and growled low in her throat. Xander nodded, "Yep--that's the ticket. Except I think you have to be an insanely powerful witch to make it work right."

Buffy felt a burst of anger, and it coincided with her very real desire to flee. She felt a great amount of energy building up as she snarled: "WILLOW!! I AM *SO* KICKING YOUR ASS WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON--!!"

Buffy felt a hand close on her wrist, and she turned as Xander sat up in bed, still looking a bit groggy, though he seemed to be quickly recovering. She froze, and waited for a moment until Xander sighed and said, "We'll get even with her later--right now, I have something to say."

Buffy waited as Xander sat up in bed and looked at her with a nervousness that seemed to mirror her own. He took a deep breath, and said, "Buffy--I was considering that job because I really thought it might be where I was most needed. After what happened in the park. . .I think I'd better stay put--there has to be a reason I keep taking shots for you and living through them. We're at the point where it's not a fluke--it's an item for my resume."

Buffy laughed, and Xander shook his head as he continued, "You're right-- our past records make this look like a bad bet, and I know why you're scared. I'm scared, too--I've hurt the people I've cared about a lot in the past, Buffy, and I'm just lucky that they all forgave me, because I'm not sure I deserved it. I don't want to find out this is just another way I can hurt you."

Buffy was silent, and Xander added, "And you're right. I've gone on before thinking I would never see you again, and I've managed to build a life that would let me go on without you." He looked deep into her eyes, and Buffy felt the jolt of it down to the base of her spine as he whispered, "So we both agree that I can live my life without you. Buffy--am I going to have to?"

Buffy stared back at him, and shook her head slowly as she whispered fiercely: "Not while I have anything to say about it you're not." She leaned forward, and Xander met her halfway as their lips met in a ferocious kiss. She forced him onto his back as she moved onto the bed, and for a moment there was only silence as hands moved over fabric.

"Ahem." Buffy and Xander flinched and looked over to the door, which had opened. Willow was standing just inside the doorway, smirking openly. Just behind her, Fred stood in the doorway, grinning and looking as if she had just discovered gold. Buffy and Xander sat up--grateful that they had not yet removed any clothing--and Willow added, "I just thought you might want to do that in a room without a big honking window that opens up on a corridor."

"Well, yeah--but we're still going to kick your ass for tricking us, Willow," Buffy replied--completely aware that the goofy grin currently residing on her face tended to drastically reduce the menace of the threat.

"Get in line," Willow replied, pulling a bundle of clothes from behind her back and walking over to hand it to Xander. Fred followed, rolling a wheelchair into the room. "You're going to have to hold off on the smoochies for a while, Buffy. We're taking him home--there are a lot of people waiting to see him."

Buffy and Xander shared exasperated looks, and it was Xander who sighed, "Great--you couldn't have showed up twenty seconds earlier? We're kind of short on cold showers right now, you know?"

Buffy snickered as Willow flushed, and she took the initiative to lead Willow and Fred out as Xander sighed in relief and began to change clothes.

* * * * *

The celebration was in the main banquet hall of the Hyperion, and it was loud and raucous. Angel had broken out the good stuff from the lounge, and ordered a lot more from sources which he would not describe in detail--and he had only given Xander one good long dirty look before embracing Buffy and shaking Xander's hand.

It was only after twenty minutes of hand-shaking, backslapping, and other congratulations that Buffy noticed that someone important was missing: "Hey, where's Dawn?"

Faith shrugged. "Haven't seen her--I went by her room before I came here, but she was out."

Buffy frowned and tried Dawn's cell phone--the message picked up immediately. She felt a chill of concern and asked, "Had she heard about Xander?"

"I called to tell her we had the cure, and that it was working. I also told her it might be a while--she might have gone off somewhere to deal and just turned off the phone." Willow replied. "I'm sure she's fine, Buffy-- she wouldn't leave the hotel without knowing what happened to Xander."

Buffy nodded and smiled wickedly. "Let's find her--we need to let her know that the arranged marriage has been called off."

Buffy and Xander were joined by Willow, Kennedy, Faith--and Helen, who followed them at a short distance, a small smile visible on her face. Buffy checked the balcony first, and found it empty. She frowned and suggested, "Why don't we try the workout room?" The others agreed, and the six of them quietly walked down the halls and to the door of the workout room. There was light spilling under the door, and Buffy called out softly, "Aha! Dawnie, we've got some news--Xander's OK--" She had been speaking as she threw the door open and marched into the room, and what she saw made her stop in her tracks and stare in silence. The workout room was indeed in use--but not for its intended purpose.

Dawn was standing in a corner of the room, energetically kissing the tall, lighter-haired young man who was holding her in his arms. Unsurprisingly, they had not noted Buffy's entrance or greeting. The Slayer was about to speak a bit more loudly when she saw Xander shaking his head, an evil smirk on his face. Buffy nodded and stepped back. Xander took a moment to take a deep breath, and as the others walked in behind him and began to stare, he opened his mouth and bellowed with every ounce of wounded outrage he could muster:

"HEY!!!"

Dawn and her companion broke apart, and Buffy raised an eyebrow at the flustered expression on Robert's face as he stumbled up against a nearby wall. Dawn's eyes widened and her expression quickly changed from surprise to sheer joy as she screeched, "Xander!! You're OK!! You're. . ." She hesitated as she processed her current situation, and the fact that Xander was scowling at her and tapping his foot theatrically. She swallowed hard, and finished in a far more subdued voice: "You're *here*."

Xander nodded--looking grim--but the voice coming from behind him sounded rather more elated: "Pay me, Kennedy."

Dawn heard Kennedy grumble, and saw a fifty-dollar bill change hands. She glared at Willow and snapped, "You knew this was going to happen? How?"

Willow snickered. "Oh, please--I had to suffer through Xander and Cordelia's romance. You think you're going to get 'bickering as obvious sexual tension' past me? I don't *think* so."

Dawn fumed in annoyance, but was distracted as Xander shook his head sadly. "So, this is the woman who promised to spend the rest of her life with me, should I be so unfortunate as to not find romance in the next eight months? Seems like you might have a hard time keeping that commitment--I'm not sure what I should think."

Buffy bit her lip carefully when she saw the appalled expression on Dawn's face. * Oh, yeah--this is going to be good *

Dawn blinked, and her voice took a pleading tone as she replied, "Xander. . .I'm sorry. I didn't plan for this to happen. It just did, and I know I've hurt you. I swear--I'll find a way to make it up to you."

"Make it up to me? Dawn, I just don't know what to say." He turned to Buffy and asked, "What would you call this, Buffy?"

Buffy frowned and pretended to consider the question before replying, "Well, I'm not sure what I'd call it, but I'm pretty sure that *Cordelia* would call it--'karma.'"

Xander winced--as a self-conscious cough was heard from Willow--and gave Buffy a mildly dirty look before turning back to Dawn--who was deeply confused at the smile that was suddenly on Xander's face. "Be that as it may--I can't let this go without an appropriate reaction. Dawn Summers--we are through, for once and for all!" Dawn blinked, and stared in shock as he walked over to Buffy and announced, "I'm leaving you for an older woman!" He leaned down and swept Buffy into his arms, kissing her with energy and enthusiasm.

Dawn's jaw dropped, and she froze in her tracks long enough to note that Buffy was returning the kiss with equal vigor. She squealed loudly and ran to the two of them, hugging them both and jumping up and down with manic energy. Buffy and Xander broke apart, sighed in mock annoyance, and released each other to hold Dawn. After a few moments, they broke apart, and Buffy called out, "OK--no more illicit smoochies in the workout room-- let's get back to the party."

"In a minute, Buffy." Xander had folded his arms and was looking at the quiet figure standing in the corner of the room. "I'd like to have a few words with Romeo here."

Buffy and Dawn looked at each other, sighed, and intoned simultaneously: "Men." They left the room, followed by the others.

Xander walked over to Robert and folded his arms, waiting in silence for several seconds as the younger man watched him nervously. At length, Xander sighed, then smacked Robert on the side of the head and demanded in a mock-irritated tone: "What took you so long?"

Robert smirked at Xander and replied quietly, "Look who's talking."

Xander frowned, then nodded. "Point taken. Let's go--they're waiting for us, and it's always good to avoid annoying Summers women."

"Preaching to the choir, Xander." Robert replied. They left the room, leaving it silent and dark.

* * * * *

EPILOGUE

Christmas Day, 2003

Buffy leaned against the wall of the banquet hall, feeling the warmth of the eggnog and enjoying the sound of the party around her. Everyone had come to the Christmas party--everyone who had made it out of the year alive, in any event.

They had arranged for the deception with Valerie's body, and Buffy had quietly manufactured a phony background story for her parents that explained why a certain English foundation would be endowing a scholarship in their daughter's name, to be awarded annually to "a young man or woman who has the courage to face the future and the ability to make it a better place." She had attended the funeral that was held a week after Valerie's death--and Xander had been at her side.

The preparations for establishing the new branch had made a vacation for Buffy out of the question, but there were no complaints from anyone when Buffy and Xander tended to disappear for extended periods of time within the course of the days after Valerie's funeral--and the snickering from their grinning friends was kept to a bare minimum.

This celebration would be one of the last times the American Slayers would probably be in a single room--barring some unforeseeable crisis. The move east for some of them would begin after the first of the year, and the outpost in Cleveland would likely be fully operational by mid-2004. Buffy would soon begin planning the international expeditions that would be required to gather the other thousand-odd Slayers that had not yet been located, and Xander would be with her--firmly fastened into the organization chart as "Director's Personal Assistant."

Helen had taken Xander's decision in good humor, and had congratulated both of them warmly. Buffy was going to miss Helen--there was something very intimate about sharing dreams the way they had. Her talents and connections were too good to waste in a secondary position, though, and Buffy had no doubt that she'd shine as the Slayers and Watchers established a firm foothold in the eastern part of the United States.

Buffy was not sure that she was as thrilled about Dawn's announced intention to take her high school equivalency test before the New Year arrived, and to follow Robert to New York while she scouted out colleges on the East Coast. A recent thought she had experienced popped up again-- this time a bit more insistently. * I'm not ready to be Aunt Buffy * She shrugged, and smiled. * At least she'll have friends out there * Helen had surprised Buffy by immediately offering Willow the position that Xander had declined, and Willow had surprised them both by immediately accepting. "It's a challenge worthy of my talents," she had commented, seeing the sad expression on Buffy's face, "and it'll involve a lot of travel. I think we won't have any trouble staying in touch--and you know I won't abandon Xander."

Buffy had nodded and sighed sadly. * The old gang is breaking up * Giles would be in England, and while she had grown accustomed to having him around less, she still felt a pang of loss. * Oh well--I'm Head of Security for the Watchers' Council on the organization chart--plenty of excuses to visit even after I set up a good team there *

The plans of the others were still up in the air. Buffy watched Faith and Robin together and smiled. * Never thought I'd see either of them this happy * She thought of Angel and the Fang Gang, and of Cordelia still in that bed in the intensive care ward. * We still don't know what the Senior Partners might be planning to screw with them--we're going to have to help them deal, whether Cordelia makes it back or not *

She shook her head and her thoughts went back to Xander. It had quickly become obvious that the two of them were *physically* compatible, though she refrained from the superhuman excesses that had marked her relationships with Riley and Spike--she didn't want to have to reserve a permanent room for Xander in Wolfram & Hart's trauma ward. Still, it was more than enjoyable, and she had to grudgingly admit that Anya had only been exaggerating slightly for all of those years.

The doubts remained, however, and they troubled her even in moments like this. She sighed, and was surprised when she heard a familiar voice next to her: "Penny for your thoughts, Buffycakes?"

She smiled and turned to Lorne before shrugging. "That obvious, huh?"

"To me? Pretty much." Lorne replied, watching her carefully. "I have a suggestion that might help, if you feel like collecting your boyfriend and following me."

Buffy raised an eyebrow, then waved Xander over. They followed Lorne out, wondering what he had in mind.

* * * * *

"OK, considering where we are, I'm not sure I like where this is going."

The three of them were in the Hyperion Lounge. Lorne had efficiently poured them all drinks, and they sat at the bar, looking at the lights swirling around the stage area. Xander--who had spoken--inclined his head at the karaoke machine and said simply, "We lucked out the first time, Lorne--I'm not sure that a second song for me is such a hot idea."

Lorne shrugged. "It's up to you, but I'd think you'd like to give it a try. You're both worried that you're headed for disaster--maybe I can get an early warning if you really are headed for something nasty."

Xander frowned, and something occurred to me. "Wait a second--we found out that I'm a Null: isn't that going to screw up your reading?"

"If you were singing alone? Probably. The ritual you did with Angel wasn't a normal reading, which is why it worked in spite of your condition. I've never been able to read you particularly well--I just get some of the themes. What I'm proposing is a duet--since I'll be intentionally trying to read your shared future, Buffy's own internal magic should be enough to give me all the juice I need." Buffy and Xander looked at each other nervously, and Lorne shrugged again. "I won't do the hard sell, kids--it's up to you. It might be bad news."

"Not to mention that we actually have to sing a duet together," commented Buffy, shivering slightly as she looked at the karaoke machine. "I've seen a lot of atrocities in my time, but--"

"I won't tell--and it's a safe bet you won't do worse than a Fyarl Demon singing 'If I Could Turn Back Time,' replied Lorne. All three occupants of the room shuddered, and Lorne led them over to the stage and handed them a thin booklet: "You'll do fine."

Lorne watched as the couple leafed through the booklet for a few minutes, and smiled as the two of them smiled simultaneously and pointed at a selection. They looked at each other and nodded, and Lorne came over with a smile: "What have you picked?" Xander pointed, and Lorne raised an eyebrow: "Going for irony?" He flinched a little at the Glare that Buffy directed his way, and held his hands up in surrender: "OK, OK--no editorials."

Lorne walked over and started making adjustments to the machine, and Xander smiled at Buffy as he asked: "Scared?"

Buffy nodded, and Xander nodded back: "Nice to know it's unanimous."

Lorne stepped back, and indicated the small screen in front of the microphones. "You're on in thirty seconds." He smiled at his friends and said simply, "Go get 'em." He went back to the bar and waited and watched as Buffy and Xander took their positions, and listened as the opening music began. He opened his mind as Xander began to sing, watching Buffy as he did so:

If you say my eyes are beautiful

It's because they're looking at you

And if you could only see yourself

You'd feel the same way too

You could say that I am a dreamer

Who's had a dream come true

If you say my eyes are beautiful

It's because they're looking at you

Buffy's eyes glittered, but she picked up her part at just the right moment, watching Xander as intently as he had watched her:

If you wonder why I'm smiling

It's because I'm happy with you

And the warm sensations touch my heart

And fill me through and through

I could hold you close forever

And never let you go

If you say my eyes are beautiful

It's because I just love you so

Buffy paused, and Xander continued:

Now my heart is an open door

Xander stopped, and it was Buffy's turn:

Won't you come inside for more

Lorne felt an upsurge of emotion, and watched intently as Buffy and Xander sang together:

You give love so sweetly now

Take my love take me completely now

With that last verse, they stopped singing and ignored the continuing music, embracing and kissing each other with intensity born of long-denied need. After a moment, they both remembered that they had an audience, and turned to see Lorne watching them with a stunned expression on his face. Buffy felt a pang of fear, and locked eyes with the Pylean with all of the force she could muster as she ran up next to him: "What is it, Lorne? What did you see?"

Lorne hesitated, then shook his head and reached past Buffy for his drink, downing the rest of it. Buffy stared up at Lorne and heard him say quietly, "My dear friends--some endings just shouldn't be spoiled." Xander saw Lorne turn his head slightly away from Buffy and at him--so that he could see Lorne's face, but Buffy couldn't--and wink once and smile before turning away again and walking towards the door.

"Damn it, that's *it*?" Buffy yelled, staring after Lorne. "We do the whole singing thing and you hold out on us! I swear to God, Lorne, if you don't come clean I'm gonna--"

"Buffy, it's all right." Xander's voice was calm.

"No it isn't, Xander!" Buffy snapped, and began yelling at Lorne again. "Lorne, if you've read me, you know just how much of a bitch I can be--"

"BUFFY!" Xander's shout caused Buffy to turn to berate him for interfering in her attempt to stick up for their need to know--only to be interrupted by a gentle kiss.

The kiss lasted for but a moment, and Xander stepped away to let Buffy see his expression. The Slayer was stunned to see it: a mixture of relief, understanding, and--most of all--sheer bliss. She had only seen it on his face once before--in the moment after she had literally come back from the dead in the lair of The Master, and Xander was staring down at her, welcoming her back to life. The expression made him look younger: for an instant she saw him as he had been in the days when she first knew him, and the sight brought tears to her eyes. She blinked them away, and the vision faded--he was once again as he was: a man in his mid-twenties with care lines that would be appropriate for a man ten years his elder. She stared at him and whispered, "Xander, I--"

Xander smiled and shook his head. "I don't need to hear the words, Buffy-- I've heard the music. I never want to stop hearing it." He leaned forward and kissed her with passion, and they sank to the floor as Lorne--sniffling slightly--paused and hit the light switch as he departed.

Author's Closing Note: The song was "If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful", and was performed most notably by a young Whitney Houston and Jermaine Jackson--the lyrics were written by Eliot Willensky. Hopefully, Lorne will not hunt me down and do me bodily harm for making him listen to it.

Author's Second Closing Note: My thanks to all who have enjoyed this series, and who have encouraged me to bring it to a successful conclusion. I have no plans for a sequel, but probably wouldn't be adverse to an occasional short story in this world as the mood strikes me.

As always, comments are welcomed and desired.